Credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Language and culture students are at the bottom of Boris’ Brexit bin bag

By Erin Graham

With semesters abroad set to start in less than a month, one language student speaks out about being left behind by Boris’ bewildering Brexit.

As a 16-year-old student sat in my Higher French class with my teacher on the 23 June 2016, you could cut the tension with a Brexit-sized knife. She told me that teachers were prohibited from expressing their political opinions, but boy, could we tell how she felt that day. The entire department, where I spent 90% of my senior school years, was in mourning. I feel like in any election you surround yourself with like-minded people and unintentionally believe that your side is going to win – but my “side” has never won in my life. Fast forward four years, and I am due to leave for my compulsory year abroad in Spain in just over a month, only to be told the by the UK Consulate of Spain that the government has ignored the EU’s suggestion of visa-less, free movement for UK students in the EU and offered no alternative deal. I therefore don’t have permission to travel past the end of the transition period, which ends on 31 December. Once again, arts students and their degree progression are the last in mind for the Tory government. 

The arts and the sheer lack of support for people in this industry from Westminster has been a hot topic of 2020. We’ve all seen that government TV advert that had a ballet dancer lacing up her shoes with the caption “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber, she just doesn’t know it yet” in a bid to train those poor, helpless, uselessly under-qualified arts graduates to sit and type zeros and ones into a computer all day to earn more money in a quote-on-quote “stable” job. This caused public uproar and received so much backlash that they actively had to remove it from circulation. Whether the government backtracked or not, this was essentially a big two fingers up to every single person aspiring to enter the arts in any form. A sort of “the arts are a hobby, get a real job. Sincerely, Boris Johnson”. By the way, Boris has a degree in Classics, so he’s really doing himself out of a job in a few years’ time. This provoked creatives to come out in the masses to point out just how much income the arts generate for the economy. In short, if the arts didn’t exist there would be no pantomimes at Christmas, no art to put in museums, and no anti-arts TV adverts, which itself was designed and curated by directors, copywriters, stylists and photographers to name a few. If we scrapped the teaching of languages in schools there would be no one to translate foreign trade deals, no one to coordinate when a European manufactured vaccine would arrive in the UK, basically no one equipped with the skills to communicate with non-anglophone countries… or is that what they want? “Democratic freedom” is what Boris has described Brexit as on TV: democratic freedom or democratic isolation? 

It’s important to note that I don’t know how Brexit is affecting other aspects of the arts such as theatre or literature production; I don’t know if their situation is as urgent as mine. But it’s now abundantly clear that the government doesn’t care enough about the (very large group) of students who use freedom of movement and Europe itself as a gateway to their career. As a Modern Languages student, my subject area is one of the worst affected by Brexit in terms of lack of opportunities and limitations. All of the open days and course catalogues list countless advantages of an entire year abroad and the ability to speak three European languages on the front page to get you excited about your future. 

There are all of these endless opportunities that speaking fluent English, French and Spanish can get you… if you’re allowed to travel to countries that speak them, that is. If you can access a visa on time. If you can get private healthcare without the EHIC. If you can pay for an £130 Covid test to travel. If you even make it. I was told by my beloved high school French teacher that I wouldn’t need to worry about the dreaded B-word in the lifetime of my degree because my year abroad starts in 2020 and we don’t leave the EU till 2021. Oh Lynne, how I wish you were right. 

Many will claim that situations like mine as a Modern Languages student are an indirect result of Covid: the government have been too busy fighting a pandemic to negotiate visas for students. Understandable on paper; but when you look at the actual progress made in four years in terms of study agreements and visa arrangements, it’s pretty miniscule. The fact the leaving process began over four years ago, and the government are pretty much no further forward with negotiations proves that this is not a delay ricocheting off of Covid. It’s a result of poor governmental prioritization and disregard for the arts community and their livelihoods. A disregard for a community that generates almost £111 billion a year – or almost £13 million an hour – for the UK economy. Is that figure why I don’t currently have legal permission to live in Spain in a month’s time? Is that figure why Fatima should get a job in cyber? You tell me: I can’t really see from the bottom of Boris’ Brexit bin bag. 


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